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Difficillima Tempora: Urban Life, Inscriptions, and Mentality in Late Antique Rome
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IN HIS FAMOUS DESCRIPTIONS OF ROME WRITTEN IN THE LATE FOURTH CENTURY, the historian Ammianus Marcellinus presented a highly negative picture of the City in his age. He pointed out the decadence of both the senatorial aristocracy and the common people and closed by stating that due to immoral conduct nothing either memorable or serious came to pass at Rome. Some decades later, Salvianus of Massilia could only bear witness to the tragical indifference of the Roman society in face of the danger of a total collapse: "Even in fear of captivity, we play games; frightened of death, we laugh. One might think that the whole Roman people has glutted Sardonian grass: it dies and laughs."
As recent research has emphasized, it would be a mistake to consider the history of the Later Roman Empire only as a "decline" ending with the "fall" of its western part. In this way it was seen, under the influence of ancient authors like Ammianus or Salvianus, by almost all historians since Edward Gibbon. Scholars of the last generation have argued convincingly that the history of Rome during the fourth and even in the fifth century by no means only showed events and processes that could be interpreted as symptoms of a general decay, or at least as signs of a general transformation; on the contrary, the Later Roman Empire offers quite a lot of evidence for the continuity of the traditional order and for the willingness as well as for the ability of the Roman society to maintain this order even under the pressure of the Barbarians. The imperial power, the administration of the state and of the numerous urban communities, several basic patterns of the social system, the Roman economy, the traditional way of urban life, and much of the Roman culture still existed and functioned in this time. Although they had to be reorganized after the so-called "crisis of the third century" and were confronted with growing difficulties during late antiquity, there was no fundamental change concerning all the basic structures—and they continued to exist not only up to the collapse of the Western Empire, but, even after the extinction of the imperial power in the West, lived on until the sixth century. The two most important processes of transformation during this time, the victory of Christianity and the growing success of barbarian invasions after the defeat of the Roman army at Hadrianopolis, did not change the fundaments of the traditional order with one stroke. It is, of course, true that there were great differences between various regions of the Empire as, e.g., between the northern frontier areas—which by no means had been removed from any form of Roman influence, but from the political dominance of Rome—and Italy, which remained under the rule of the emperors until 476 A.D. In the central areas of the Imperium Romanum, i.e., in the Mediterranean regions, the bonds of continuity and resistance against "decline and fall" were clearly present, including the conviction of large groups of the society that the Roman order was established to all eternity. If it was threatened, it had to be defended. "The Roman order is in collapse, but our neck does not bow down," wrote Saint Jerome. His pagan contemporaries like Symmachus or the author of the Historia Augusta thought the same.
Within this setting, the urban life in the City of Rome and the mentality of its citizens in Late Antiquity offer a very interesting panorama. The City of the fourth and fifth centuries was not what she had been during the long period before, from Augustus to the late third century. From Diocletian and Constantine onward, the emperors had definitely removed their residence to other places. In consequence, Rome lost its role as the center of the political life of the Empire. But at the same time the Senate and also the senatorial aristocracy, which now ruled the City without standing in the permanent shadow of the Emperor, greatly improved their influence. The administrative system established by Diocletian and Constantine, the social order with its fundamental dichotomy of the senatorial aristocracy and the plebs, now without an intermediary equestrian order, the system of food provisions for the metropolis with its enormous number of inhabitants, and the role of the Urbs as the most important cultural center of the Roman world—all this was distinguished by an astonishing continuity during the whole period of Late Antiquity. It did not break down even in the fifth and early sixth centuries; neither in consequence of the raids of the Goths in 410 or of the Vandals in 455, nor through the collapse of the Western Empire in 476 nor through the establishment of the kingdom of Theoderich in succession of Odoacer, killed in 493. The system of the senatorial government of the City also resisted internal conflicts, like the repeated hunger-revolts and other social upheavals, which resulted from the clash between pagans and Christians and from the fight for the leading role in the City between senatorial magistrates on the one side and the bishop of Rome on the other side.
Given this situation, it is highly interesting to learn how the inhabitants of Rome themselves considered the state and the development of their Urbs in this period. This article, therefore, poses the following questions: How did the ruling class of Rome in Late Antiquity present itself to the public, and what did it, to judge from the public media, think about its own situation and problems? In dealing with this topic, particular attention will be paid to the inscriptions of the Urbs that belong to the Late Empire; i.e. first of all to the epigraphic documents of the emperors, and even more to those of the magistrates of the City. It must be realized that in the Roman world inscriptions had a very important function as a medium of communication; in a certain sense, they were a substitute for the press, radio and television of our days. They must always be compared, of course, with the testimonia given by other sources, like the contemporary literature, juridical texts, coins, architecture, sculpture etc.
During the last years the inscriptions of emperors and senators from Rome, the Tituli imperatorum domusque eorum and the Tituli magistratuum populi Romani, have been systematically revised for some new fascicles of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, prepared by a group of scholars at Heidelberg in collaboration with Professor Silvio Panciera and his team at Rome. A volume dedicated to the inscriptions of monuments erected by the emperors or in their honor appeared in 1996, with a complete edition of some 600 new documents and Addenda et corrigenda to 800 inscriptions already published in the old volumes of the CIL. The next volume, which includes more than 600 new epigraphic documents concerning Roman magistrates and Addenda et corrigenda to almost another 1,000 texts of this kind, is forthcoming. A considerable part of these sources belong to the Late Empire. Both the new documents and the inscriptions, which, already known, have undergone revision, improve our knowledge of urban life at Rome during the last centuries of Antiquity. In particular, they make us familiar with the situation of Rome the governing class intended to convey to both the visitors and the lower strata of the population of the City itself by means of monuments. The statues together with their inscriptions, supposed to serve this purpose, were erected on the public places of Rome—first of all the forum Romanum and the forum Traiani, but also other fora —as well as in the palaces of the aristocrats.
This picture did, of course, not necessarily correspond to the truth. In fact, it differed from it in several points. Nevertheless, the image of urban life expressed through the inscribed monuments may be very interesting in a double sense. Whenever we can assume a correspondence between historical reality and auto-representation, it is instructive to see in which fields people did not hesitate to confess the existence of real problems, also of rather grave ones, and which measures were publicly proposed for their solution. At the same time, whenever there was an evident gap between the official version of the situation of Rome and reality, it is very interesting to learn which problems were underestimated or consciously concealed behind the façade of an intact world.
It is certainly not true that official documents in any case have to be considered untruthful, i.e. that they always tell us the contrary of what was going on. In Roman literature it was indeed common to complain of the decadence of one's time in comparison with the noble past; in that manner Ammianus Marcellinus, in giving a negative description of Roman society at his time, clung to the old "biological" theory of decadence, which said that Rome, having grown up from childhood to youth and manhood, necessarily had to decline in its old age. Inscriptions were, however, like public architecture, sculpture, reliefs, painting, and also coins, traditionally a medium of self-representation intending to glorify individuals or groups, i.e. to emphasize peoples' merits and achievements. They were not used to lament the bad times, in this point differing from what Roman historians so often did. In epigraphic documents it was common to mention difficulties only if one could praise the successful solution of these problems. This was a main subject of official inscriptions, for example, under Augustus, in an age in which the basis of the epigraphic culture in the Roman Empire was established: The Augustan epigraphy suggested that Augustus had created a new Golden Age after a long period of civil wars and external defeats. The self-representation of his successors followed the same lines. In these circumstances it is interesting to notice that during Late Antiquity the tone of the inscriptions of Rome was by no means as optimistic as it had been during the first centuries of the Empire.
Like the coins with their catchwords, such as fel(icium) temp(orum) reparatio, felicitas perpetua or beatitudo publica, the inscriptions of Rome, which glorified late Roman emperors were in fact intended to convey the impression that everything was in a good state thanks to the virtues and deeds of the rulers. Diocletianus and Maximianus seem to be praised by an inscription of Rome even as the creators of the best of all ages. Whenever inscriptions of this kind indicated problems of the public order at all, the texts pretended that they had been caused by "tyrants," i.e. by rivals of the present ruler who were, however, always defeated by the Emperor, with the consequence that public security, justice, peace, and prosperity were restored. In the inscriptions of the late Roman aristocracy, however, there is no sign of a conviction that the age in which their heroes lived would have been generally regarded as a "good time," as it had been pretended not only in the imperial, but also in the senatorial inscriptions of the Early Empire. The senatorial epigraphy of the Late Empire pointed, sometimes very clearly, rather to the contrary, even if problems normally appeared in the usual manner, that is as already resolved. Memmius Vitrasius Orfitus, prefect of the City for a second time from 357 to 359, at the end of his prefecture was honored with at least four statues set up in his house by different corporations. In fact, one of the texts written on the bases of these monuments tells us that the prefect had renewed the status optimus of the City. But all these inscriptions emphasize with the same wording, doubtlessly in correspondence to a formula established according to the wishes of the prefect himself, that the times in which the senator resolved a part of his former duties were difficillima tempora. This terminology does not only refer to the revolt of Magnentius against Constantius II, but also to the situation after the defeat of the usurpator, which was characterized by the difficult position of the Senate in confrontation with the two rivals. And more or less in the same manner as imperial constitutions that are preserved in our juridical sources, the inscriptions of late Roman magistrates noted the existence of some structural problems and difficulties which emerged again and again. I would like to concentrate myself on three of these topics: on the usurpation of privileges by unauthorized groups of the population and similar fraudes, on the food shortages, and on the dilapidation of public buildings. All these problems were, of course, by no means new ones. In the inscriptions of Roman magistrates of earlier periods, however, they never appeared so often and were certainly not described as drastically as in the epigraphic documents of the Later Empire.
I would like to start with the usurpation of privileges and the neglect of duties by individuals and groups. In the imperial constitutions of the Later Empire laws aiming at people who abused privileges or did not fulfill their obligatory tasks were a very common feature. Of course, we also know some epigraphic documents from earlier centuries, which referred to problems of this kind, e.g. the rescript of Septimius Severus and Caracalla concerning the centonarii of Solva in Noricum. According to this document, the emperors ordered that rich men who had abused the vacatio munerum of the collegia should be compelled to carry out their duties; at the same time, however, the emperors confirmed the privilegia of the collegia, which an over-zealous governor of the province had tried to abolish.
From Rome we know some edicts of fourth-century urban prefects that deal with similar problems. One of the most interesting documents of this kind is the much discussed edict of Tarracius Bassus, published in 375 or 376 in several copies at different places of the Urbs. Numerous fragments of these inscriptions have been preserved; by studying them it has been possible not only to reconstruct the full text of the edict, but also to calculate the number of people concerned by the orders of the prefect. The tabernarii, shop possessors, disregarding the edicts of former urban prefects and revolting against Roman discipline, misused money destined for public targets; they occupied seats in the theater, the amphitheater and the circus that did not correspond to their social status; and they laid claim to free bread, which was intended only for poor people: qui sibi pecun[iam publicam, locum indebitum in] spectaculis, et panem populi contra disciplinam Romanam derel[ictis edictis praeff. urbi] vindicare consueverant. The edict made public the names of all tabernarii who were to be punished. From the preserved fragments we can conclude that the list contained more than one hundred names, quite a high number, grouped into twelve columns. Those tabernarii came from all the regions of the City; among them we recognize representatives of different branches of trade, pagans as well as Christians and Jews. Even if the edict aimed at stopping all forms of abuse, the document made clear to everybody that there were large groups within the urban population that had to be forced by law to maintain the disciplina Romana.
We also know some edicts through which urban prefects of the fourth century attempted to stop illegal activities in the context of the food supply of the City, especially concerning meat and bread. In the same manner as imperial constitutions, these edicts describe the fraudes, i. e. the dishonest practices, and they lay down punishments for these abuses. But whereas imperial constitutions, e.g. with regard to the suarii, the swine collectors, nevertheless emphasize the general usefulness of these men who "display extremely vigilant exertions for the advantages of Roman people" and note "the special grant of imperial favour" given to them, the edicts of the urban prefects restrict themselves to the description of privileges, duties, abuses and punishments. They speak of the wide-spread abuses, e.g. of the consueta fraudibus licentia of the molendinarii, of the millers who worked in the mills constructed on the Gianicolo; but it is quite astonishing to see that the prefect, while announcing severe punishments, at the same time appealed to his humanitas. This clear case of self-glorification makes it all too evident that not only the inscriptions set up in honor of the magistrates, but also those documents which presented their edicts and other official activities to the public, were a medium of the self-representation of Roman aristocrats. In their edicts, the magistrates appear as gentlemen confronted with a mass of defrauders and criminals who in some cases had to be threatened with capital punishment. This was no longer the magnificent harmony of Roman society that the epigraphic culture of the Early Empire had intended to convey.
Excerpted from Urban Centers and Rural Contexts in Late Antiquity by Thomas S. Bums, John W. Eadie. Copyright © 2001 Michigan State University Press. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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